New Year Issue

The Mahabharata Moment

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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An epic meditation on being and everythingness
Like many of us, I grew up with the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Born, and initially bred, in distant Shillong, the Ramayana brought me my first literary prize, so to speak. I was around eight and the prize was courtesy The Illustrated Weekly of India (‘Aunty Wendy’) for a retelling of the Ramayana story. A box of plasticine arrived as a prize. Little did I know then that I would go on to translate the Mahabharata and Ramayana (the latter an ongoing project). Growing up, I went through a succession of retellings of the Ramayana (not just Valmiki’s) and Mahabharata in vernacular languages and in English. The Sanskrit originals came later. I went through the questions I am routinely asked now. Why didn’t Krishna prevent the war? Why was life unfair to Karna? What was Draupadi’s take on the incidents? Why did Yudhishthira behave in perverse ways? These are interesting questions and people will continue to speculate on them, and while there is much more to the Mahabharata than the core story of Kauravas and Pandavas, there are three reasons I find them sterile. However, before that, I hope people read the epics in the original Sanskrit. The beauty of Sanskrit poetry (especially true of Valmiki’s Ramayana) is impossible to capture in translation. You can try a rendition in rhyme, but that doesn’t convey the essence of the actual text’s poetry. Today, I love the Ramayana for its poetry and I adore the Mahabharata for its complexity.

That complexity is the reason we still identify with the Mahabharata. The context may be different, but the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the protagonists are eternal. Let me now explain why I find those questions sterile. Abridged versions render everything in black and white: the Kauravas are bad, the Pandavas are good. The unabridged text, though, is full of nuances. First, as the story progresses, the characters themselves change. They are not constant in time. The Yudhishthira who gambles is not the same as the Yudhishthira at the end of the exile. Nor is Draupadi, nor Karna. This is understandable; we ourselves change with age and time. It is remarkable that the composer captured this transition. Speaking of gambling, the Sanskrit text is not unambiguous about Shakuni having cheated, as opposed to Yudhishthira being a bad player. There is a parallel Nala- Damayanti story, where an unskilled Nala loses his kingdom gambling with dice, learns the tricks of the trade later, becomes a better gambler, and then wins it back in a rematch. Yudhisthira, after one year of exile in concealment, turns up in King Virata’s court and is described as a skilled gambler. We are never told where he picked up these skills. And we can continue to speculate whether Veda Vyasa had some idea of a rematch and eventually discarded it; if he had one for Nala, why not for Yudhishthira?

Second, every character in the Mahabharata has a point-of- view and a justification for his or her action. This is often missed out in abridged renderings. No one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The Mahabharata is a text about ‘dharma’. But, that said, what is ‘dharma’? It isn’t about the dharma of varnas and ashramas (what is usually described as ‘codes of conduct’ for the four varnas of society and four ashramas of life). This is the stuff of Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras. As a case in point, consider Bhishma and Arjuna. Having accepted a vow of celibacy, Bhishma is approached by Amba. The story is well known, so I can gloss over the details. Unless Bhishma marries her, Amba threatens to immolate herself. Because of his vow, Bhishma refuses. Amba immolates herself and is reborn as Shikhandi, Bhishma’s destroyer. Now Arjuna also had a temporary (one year) vow of celibacy. During this time, he is approached by Ulupi, who has fallen in love with him. Unless Arjuna marries her, Ulupi threatens to immolate herself. Arjuna is confronted with a conflict of dharma: which is more important, adhering to his vow or saving a woman’s life? He chooses to marry Ulupi. We have two Kshatriyas with identical vows who take different decisions. This is the essence of the Mahabharata. Dharma isn’t for collective categories, it is individual. You take a decision according to what you perceive as dharma, and I take a decision according to what I consider dharma. Each of us suffers the consequences. Who is to know who is right and who is wrong? That is the wrong question to ask. I think this attribute is part of the reason why the Mahabharata still resonates. We identify with those dilemmas of one course of action vis-à-vis the other. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is addressed as Suyodhana just as often, and not just by his father. He has a case too.

Translating the Mahabharata means you are deeply immersed in it, though you could be just as engaged if you read it every day without translating it. I am sometimes asked if it has changed me personally. The right person to answer that question is my wife, not me. But I do know it has changed me. It has made me less judgemental. Every person has a point of view. Nor do I have to prove myself ‘right’ by proving you ‘wrong’. That’s part of the reason I hate participating in debates now, including TV panels. Caricaturing a bit, before the Mahabharata, I thought I had the answer to everything. Now I know I have the answer to nothing.

A few years ago, I did a book on Meghalaya and travelled extensively throughout the state, including villages and rural areas. In rural India, even now, if you visit someone around noon, you are invited to have a meal, however poor that household may be. This was a village in Jaintia Hills and the lady of the household had cooked some pork. She invited me to have a bite with her and it was delicious. I tweeted a few words about this hospitable trait of village India, something I had also encountered in Gujarat and Jharkhand. There were some aghast tweets in response: how could I, a translator of the Mahabharata, have had non-vegetarian food? Twitter is hardly the medium to respond to such questions, and I am not vegetarian. But the moot point is this. Had I been vegetarian, what would have been the greater ‘dharma’, adhering to my food habits or not hurting the sentiments of my host? I don’t think the answer is necessarily clear-cut. Food habits reminds me of a Vishvamitra story recounted in the Mahabharata, of the famous sage who surfaces in several places.

Sanskrit is a delightful language. Its rules of grammar, samasa in particular, enable you to give diametrically opposite meanings to the same word. Take the word ‘vishvamitra’, usually understood as someone who is a friend (a ‘mitra’) to the universe (the ‘vishva’). Without violating any rules of grammar, it can also be interpreted as someone who is a special (‘vi’) friend (‘mitra’) to a dog (‘shva’). If you think this is sacrilege, let me point out that Vishvamitra’s sons were Shunapuccha (‘dog’s tail’) and Shunashepa (‘dog’s penis’).

But I digress. Let me get back to the story. Indra was angry, and there was no rain for 12 years. There was drought and famine; no food to be had. Vishvamitra was in distress; he couldn’t feed himself, or his wife and children. Starving, he went around, searching for food. He came upon a village of Chandalas (who were not quite Shudras, but we can ignore that). In the house of one Chandala, Vishvamitra saw a rope slung across the courtyard. A dog’s carcass hung from that rope. The Chandala had slaughtered the dog and eaten the upper half. Vishvamitra waited for the Chandala to go to sleep. He then intended to steal the remaining part of the carcass so that he could feed himself and his wife and children. The Chandala did go to sleep. However, when Vishvamitra tried to steal the carcass, other dogs began to bark and the Chandala woke up. A dialogue then ensues between Vishvamitra and the Chandala. In succession, the Chandala’s arguments are the following. ‘You are a sage. You should not eat non-vegetarian food.’ ‘If you want to eat non-vegetarian food, you should not eat the flesh of a dog. It is a polluted creature.’ ‘If you want to eat the flesh of a dog, you should not eat the hind quarters. It is the most polluted of all.’ Vishvamitra initially says ‘Dharma can be pursued if I am alive. If I am dead, what is the point of talking about dharma? Let me first survive.’ He then changes tack and says, ‘Who am I? Am I the physical body or am I the aatman? Who will eat the dog-meat? The physical body. If I am the aatman, how am I polluted?’ Since the Chandala has no answer to this, he allows Vishvamitra to take the meat away. However, Indra takes pity and showers down. The Mahabharata doesn’t actually make Vishvamitra eat the dog-meat. Or perhaps the original narrative did make him eat dog-meat and that bit was excised later. After all, the Mahabharata was composed in layers, over a period of time. We shall never know what the ‘original’ Veda Vyasa text was.

Let me now turn to the third and final reason, and when I mention this, I am likely to be misunderstood since this smacks of the free will versus determinism debate. The Mahabharata has a strong sense of destiny and this comes out in utterances by all the characters. No human endeavour is capable of changing one’s destiny. This is the essence of karma. Without getting into the debate, all I want to say is that if you are immersed in the Mahabharata, you imbibe it. It permeates you. You cease to think that you can change the world. The world has existed without you for thousands of years and will continue to exist for thousands of years without you. You are insignificant. You thus lose a sense of ego and realise that the most you can do is to change yourself, in the way you react to external relationships, circumstances and events. Most of the time, our reactions are to such external interactions and you become detached from them: ‘This too shall pass.’ I am not suggesting this happens consciously. It is more in the realm of the subconscious. Instead of the external, you ponder more about your inner self. Of the six original schools of darshana, three feature prominently in the Mahabharata, not just in the Bhagavad Gita part: Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga. What I have just said is the essence of all three and is what we strive for through meditation. From my perspective, being immersed in the Mahabharata is a form of meditation.

There was a time when I was interested in ‘research’ questions on the Mahabharata and wrote papers and a book on that. Several years ago, there was a paper I thought of writing and never did. I can make out a convincing case that in the original story, there were only two Pandava brothers: Yudhishthira and Bhima. Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva were added later. This will no doubt intrigue you, but I will never write that paper. That research interest has waned. For me now, the Mahabharata is a text of self-realisation. Every time I delve into it, I realise most apparently pressing matters are transient. The pressing questions are different. Who am I? Why am I here? Where have I come from? Where will I go? What is the purpose of my life? These are questions all of us should ask. Many of us spend our lives without ever asking them.

The Mahabharata has made me ask those questions and that is what the text means to me. There is an obvious counter- question. Have I found answers to those questions? No, I haven’t. I am not sure there are clear-cut answers, and the answers for me won’t be the same as the answers for you. It is a journey and not a terminal goal and the Mahabharata has been the trigger and my companion.